Border Medicine

Border Medicine: A Transcultural History of Mexican American Curanderismo

Brett Hendrickson (New York and London: NYU Press, 2014)

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Review by Jennifer Koshatka Seman

As students and scholars of the borderlands, we seek innovative literature and approaches to the field that can broaden not only our perspectives, but those of our students as well. Border Medicine: A Transcultural History Mexican American Curanderismo is such a book. In Border Medicine, religious studies scholar Brett Hendrickson examines the Mexican faith healing practice, curanderismo. This practice is often associated with the U.S.-Mexico borderlands because of the presence of ethnic Mexicans in this region who practice it or believe in it. Hendrickson’s study of curanderismo sheds light on another facet of the borderlands: that it is about process and hybridity, about the creation of something new… and the sometimes-unintended consequences of this.

Gloria Anzaldúa described the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as “una herida abierta,” an “open wound” created when two nations rub against each other and the less powerful one bleeds.[1] Anzaldúa also described the borderlands as a place where new, hybrid cultural practices and identities are born because of the intersection of different peoples, ideas, and cultures in this space: “And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the life blood of two worlds merging to from a third country – a border culture.”[2] In Border Medicine, Hendrickson addresses the cultural combination that created curanderismo and the ways in which it appeals to a wide audience even beyond the borderlands. He argues that although curanderismo has historically been most closely associated with Mexicans and Mexican Americans, it has always possessed a strong appeal to Anglo Americans. Hendrickson explains, “curanderismo’s intrinsic hybrid nature opens up multiple channels of convergence with other energy-based healing modalities common in American metaphysical religion” (3). Border Medicine illuminates these “channels of convergence.”

Border Medicine opens with a question that the author is often asked regarding his interest in curanderismo: “How did you get into that?” (ix) As a religious studies scholar who happens to be both Anglo American and Protestant, Hendrickson understands how some may find it unusual that he studies curanderismo, a faith healing practice that mixes Mexican folk Catholicism with indigenous healing arts and ideologies. He explains that his experience living in Latin America and especially pastoring a church in the borderlands state of Arizona inspired in him “an abiding interest in religious medicine and conceptions of health for Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and their Anglo neighbors in the American West and Southwest” (x). Using his own subject position, Hendrickson demonstrates a core theme of this book: curanderismo possesses cross-cultural appeal.

In the early chapters of Border Medicine, the author unpacks the history of curanderismo as well as the connections between curanderismo and distinct (but in many ways similar) metaphysical Anglo spiritual healing practices. Drawing on scholarship that students and scholars of the borderlands will be familiar with, including David Weber’s The Mexican Frontier, Andrés Reséndez’s Changing National Identities at the Frontier, and Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects, Chapter One, “Hybrid Healing and the U.S.-Mexico Border Region,” gives an overview of the origins of curanderismo.[3] The author describes how a variety of inputs, including “European colonialism, attitudes of racial supremacy, pandemics, mestizaje, and geopolitical isolation” as well as indigenous medical and spiritual practices already present in the borderlands combined to create curanderismo (30). In the second chapter, “American Metaphysical Religion and the West,” Hendrickson explains how curanderismo found fertile ground in the American West. In this chapter, Hendrickson establishes his argument about the “channels of convergence” that existed (and still exist), allowing Anglo Americans to be open to curanderismo. He argues that it was in the American West especially that people tended to possess a “metaphysical predisposition” that made them receptive to curanderismo. The author traces this predisposition back to colonial America by invoking David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment, a book that examines how many early Americans believed in folk magic as well as strict Calvinistic Christianity.[4] Hall argues that for many colonial New Englanders, belief in folk magic and religion coexisted without significant contradiction in people’s every day lives. Hendrickson finds this same co-existence in the turn-of-the century American West, a place where a wide variety of heterodox spiritual practices found adherents, including Mesmerism, Transcendentalism, spiritualism, and New Thought. Another factor that added to the “metaphysical disposition” of many 19th century westerners and borderlanders was simply that these alternative healing modalities presented a viable option for people at a time of uncertainty in allopathic medicine, a time when healing practices like homeopathy and curanderismo were seen just as valid as “professional” allopathic medicine. Chapters Three and Four build the “channels of convergence” argument with examinations of three prominent curanderos: Don Pedrito Jaramillo (1829-1907), “Santa” Teresa Urrea (1871-1906), and Niño Fidencio (1906-1938). Other scholars have written about these healers, but Hendrickson focuses on their appeal to Anglo Americans, supporting his argument: “The religious and metaphysical predispositions of white Americans often prepared them for healing experiences with curanderos” (62).

In the final two chapters, Hendrickson presents his original research with modern-day curanderos, demonstrating how the cross-cultural appeal of curanderismo and “channels of convergence” have made it resonate with Anglos in the twenty-first century. Chapter Five, “The American Spiritual Marketplace,” examines how modern-day curanderos have followed in the steps of nineteenth-century curanderos Don Pedrito Jaramillo and Teresa Urrea by reaching out to a multi-ethnic clientele. In particular, the author describes the importance of stressing the indigenous roots of this healing practice in the appeal of modern-day curanderismo. The major point of this chapter is that many Anglos have become open to receiving curanderismo and becoming curanderos because the practice has become less focused on folk Catholicism and more on energy, Indian roots, and a “Divine Force” rather than a Christian God (138-139).

In the sixth and final Chapter, “Reclaiming the Past and Redefining the Future,” Hendrickson describes his experience attending the University of New Mexico’s “Traditional Healing Without Borders” class. This special two-week course features a variety of curanderos from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border demonstrating healing techniques and speaking about their healing practices. Hendrickson is critical of what he sees as the modern embrace of curanderismo as ancient Aztec wisdom and the elision of the Spanish influence that is presented in this course. However, Hendrickson describes how he was moved by the sincerity of the curanderos at the UNM course and decided that rather than be a “debunker” of their historical inaccuracies he would try to understand how they made meaning of curanderismo (155). To this end, he invokes Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals, a book that explains how, in the history of metaphysical practitioners in Massachusetts, most did not understand the deep history of their metaphysical practices, rather it was the stories about their experiences that held authority and truth to them.[5] Similarly, Hendrickson suggests the embrace of the Aztec roots of curanderismo is about telling the stories that make sense and have meaning to modern-day curanderos. He argues, “this is part of a larger cultural project to reclaim and reconnect with those parts of Mexican history that colonial powers and official historians have ignored or obfuscated” (156). This modern curanderismo focused on indigeneity also appeals to white Americans with interest in Neo-Shamanism and the appropriation of Indian knowledge.

Curanderismo is the result of a long and dynamic history of combination, and the process of combination continues. Hendrickson concludes by arguing that the continuing invention of curanderismo, like all transcultural exchanges is complex: “the hybrid processes of transcultural exchange are for more multivalent, slippery, and resistant to facile interpretations” than one might think (195). I recommend Border Medicine for those teaching borderlands history courses or the history of the U.S. West, as well as those with an interest in the history and culture of spirituality in the borderlands. Not only does this book provide an engaging and theoretically rich examination of curanderismo, Border Medicine provides an example of Anzaldúa’s concept of how something new continues to be created and recreated in the borderlands.

* * *

Brett Hendrickson has a forthcoming book on NYU Press in 2017 entitled America’s Miraculous Church: The Healing Power of the Santuario, about the Santuario de Chimayó in northern New Mexico, a site known for miraculous healing.

[1]   Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, second edition (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999), 25.

[2]   Ibid.

[3]   David Weber, The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846: The American Southwest Under Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982); Andrés Reséndez, Changing National Identities at the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and The Making of Modern America (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[4]   David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).

[5]   Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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One thought on “Border Medicine

  1. Medical Books

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